Poetry as Autobiography: A Dialogue With D.M. Aderibigbe
Poet and educator, D.M. Aderibigbe was born in Lagos, Nigeria. He earned his BA in History and Strategic Studies from the University of Lagos, and received his MFA in Creative Writing from Boston University as a BU Fellow and received a Robert Pinsky Global Fellowship. A recipient of fellowships from The James Merrill House, OMI International Arts Center, Ucross Foundation, Jentel Foundation and a scholarship from Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. His chapbook In Praise of our Absent Father was published by Akashic Books in 2016 as part of the APBF New Generation African Poets series. He currently teaches creative writing in South Florida.
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in sun-drenched Gaborone, Botswana and a sleepy apartment in lively Miami, USA.
INTERVIEW BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
Gaamangwe: D.M., let’s begin by talking about battles. Think the last parts of your letters from my father, Odysseus:
Omo mi ata ta, rise each night, walk/ through every gate, if they ask you where you are/ going, tell them to fight a battle. Walk/ until solitude fills/ your fists. Fall/ on your knees, make sure your vision is darker/ than the darkness around./ Scream and scream until god’s/ ears begin to hurt.
We, as your readers, have witnessed some of your battles in your autobiographical poems. What has been true or rather what have you discovered about your battles, and fighting them in front of the world?
D.M.: First of all, thank you so much Gaamangwe, for thinking of me. I think my individual battles have hardly set foot on paper. Many of the battles you see aren’t mine per se. They are my mother’s. My mother’s mother’s. They are the battles of the woman who sells pepper by the roadside to make sure her kids go to school while her husband is busy getting drunk every hour of the day. They are battles of the woman who’s been told again and again that her body is an empire of pain and silence. They are the battles of kids who thought it was normal for their mothers to sleep with swollen faces and chew with broken teeth. Of course, I was one of those kids. But there are millions of such kids, which is why these battles are not private. Which is why many of these battles are true in every sense, and some are hybrids of facts and fictions.
Gaamangwe: Indeed these battles are true, important and must be told at all cost. Because the other battle besides housing pain and silence is that normalization you spoke about. The fact that we have accepted a society that allows women to go through so much at the hands of the people that should love and protect them. So, the task for us will always be witnessing our traumas as well as breaking apart the walls we have built to hold up these traumas. But, of course, witnessing and going back to our traumas is no fun. In fact, a majority of us would rather repress our traumatic memories than introspect on them, especially publicly. What moves you to keep exploring your mother’s battles? What do you find for yourself, your mother and father as you explore these trauma battles?
D.M.: To continue from where you left off; this normalization of female tears, adoration of machismo and obsession with violence that have continued to permeate our society more than ever move me to keep exploring these battles of my mother. Considering that my mother, like every one in three women, was a victim keeps me going. The fact that these issues stretch longer than my bitter imagination, and are deeper than my mother’s tears if pooled together to make an ocean keeps me going. Most times, I think of kids who have lived in these toxic memories before me, and those who will come after me. If silence is the best we can offer, we are all doomed. Including those from good, stable homes. I mean, humans are social beings, human interaction is unavoidable, and so one way or another you come into contact with products of broken childhoods.
On what I find for myself, my mother and father exploring these battles: First, I find that I’m more interested in understanding my familial past than reconstructing it. And nothing pushes me in this direction more than my writing. The more I write about it, the more I understand men’s unjustifiable claim to the throne of any social hierarchy—, which by the way they create. More than anything, it explains who I am to me, or better still, it points me in the direction of the man I’m working to be.
Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. I think that if we lived our lives in that trajectory of understanding rather than reconstructing maybe we can move to wholeness. Isn’t it that our past traumas always steal much more than our past, they haunt us and harbor in our present and future moments, swallowing bits of our wholeness, our center and joy?
For me, I am most interested in wholeness. Just to feel completely at peace with my life, and I know that I will find this as soon as I grant understanding to all of my experiences, all of my choices and role in those experiences, and mostly understanding to all the characters in those experiences. I don’t know if I know how to do that though. Sometimes, I feel that I try to reach a level of understanding (the kind that allows me to not be daily affected by said experience), but being at peace with them, I am not sure it’s something I readily know how to arrive at. What has been your experience with that? Has understanding moved you to be at peace with your past?
And still on movements and directions, who and what and where is this man you are working towards?
D.M.: I’m not sure if the purpose of understanding my past is to be at peace with it. I believe the major reason why most people dialogue with the past is to understand the present, which in turn helps shape their future. This is exactly true for me. I communicate with the past, hoping its lessons guides my path of the present into the future. And this has been my experience. The experience of learning that violence is just a subset of abuse, but isn’t abuse itself. That loneliness is a poison. That love is a plant that needs care to grow. The experience of seeing snippets of the man I want to be and realizing I’m still far away. I’m working to be this man.
You know, a week ago, while exploring DJ Khaled’s latest album Grateful, I got hung up on my favorite track titled “Good Man” featuring Jadakiss and Pusha T. The whole time I listened to this song and even after, the only question that kept hovering on my mind was: Are you a good man? Though I have learnt how to use the gifts of kindness and love, I still find myself short of providing a positive answer to this question. Because I still want to be that guy who doesn’t let friendships and relationships slide to the edge of destruction before saving them. I still want to be that guy who understands that maturity has a price and is willing to pay it at any time of the day. I still want to be that guy who makes his kids (whenever I have them) and those coming after him see that it is okay to be flawed, in fact to be seriously flawed, what is not okay is to make his flaws slip into genes.
Gaamangwe: You know this question: Are you a good man? reminds me of a meme I have in my phone. A man says to his dog: who’s a good dog? And the dog replies: Whoa, that’s a hell of a question. Who among us can truly be said to be good? What is goodness? And that’s a really important question to consider. I find that most of the time things are never as clear cut as we imagine. Goodness is not a singular, specific state of being. Say the guy who waits until the edge of destruction to save his friendship and relationships is good. Because often, there are many complexities at play in any moment. I guess in a way to think of one’s goodness, one must always offer understanding and kindness in times of shortcomings. In the meme, it’s simple because the man tells the dog: you are! you are a good dog. And the dog is thrilled because it can be that simple. The man doesn’t see any of his shortcomings or, at least, they didn’t matter in the end.
I was just talking to a friend on how childhood wounds tend to manifest in our adults lives. Freud said our childhood experiences determine most of our adulthood experiences, and that often we keep recreating our old traumas until we have fully addressed and healed them. Our baseline of interaction is dysfunction because that’s what we first learnt. So, a lot of our adulthood is spent coming into awareness and unlearning dysfunction. But of course, it’s not as simple and generic as that. However, I wonder if through your writing you have come into your own personal dysfunction (picked up from childhood learning), and you see how that plays out in your current life? How and in what ways has writing about your family experiences disrupted what was dysfunctional in relations to your family members?
D.M.: That’s cool. I need to find this meme. One more thing on goodness: you see, while it is so true that no one is an expert on it, goodness is something that is alive. For example, when I do something good or receive goodness I feel my body move, I swear. I think this is what Bhumibol Adulyadej meant when he said “Goodness is something that makes us serene and content; it is magnificent. Those who are not good are evil.”
You see, the evils of my childhood were stunted first by my grandmother who took me away to live with her, and then my step-father who took us in. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience any dysfunction. I mean, with my kind of childhood, how wouldn’t I? While I do not know if writing has helped me come into my personal dysfunction, one thing I do know for sure is, writing about these experiences has helped me understand and see where these dysfunctions stemmed (and are still stemming) from and how to avoid (re)creating them when dealing with family members and by extension, members of the human race.
Gaamangwe: You know D.M, as I write this, I am listening (on repeat) to a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s door”. I am in bliss. There is just something about this song that is pure perfection. I feel like in an age, there would always be an art that will become transcendental, become a reflection of pure energy and creative intelligence, and a slice of heaven. Art that speaks of and for humanity. The feeling I have now is similar to the one I had when I read your poem Pothos:
Suppose my bones could grow
so long and my flesh
swell so much that Heaven
would become my bedroom
and the sky, my floor.
Suppose we humans could
become nothing bigger
than clusters of ants
crawling in corners
and walls of wardrobes.
Suppose I could birth
light and darkness
and my breath could
make a heart function,
I would make my bones
and your blood speak
a common language.
It speaks to me, moves me in ways I really can’t articulate. I became the I that is you in Pothos. It’s pure perfection. Speak to me about Pothos and your own personal transcendental poems written by you and other poets.
D.M.: Thank you for your kind words. See ehn, Pothos began as a poem of appreciation. When I set out to write it, I wanted to dedicate it to someone who did a great thing for me. Midway into it though, Pothos took on its own independence and became something different entirely. Of course, transcendence is something I find interesting; I love the Aristotelian concept of the Unmoved Mover, the Yoruba concept of Ori, the theology of Soren Kierkegaard among others. I just didn’t set out to write a poem about it. But I guess this is the case with most artists, the final works are just end products of our unspoken thoughts.
Some of my favorite poems that deal whether explicitly or tangentially with transcendence include Natasha Trethewey’s “Incident,” Derek Walcott’s “Season of Phantasmal Peace,” Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet LXV,” Yes. And a favourite short story which deals with this theme is Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Girl Who Can.” With the exception of Trethewey’s “Incident,” the remaining poems and Aidoo’s short story are disguised as dealing with other themes. Walcott’s as usual deals with the geographic landscape of his island, Neruda’s on love or its absence, Aidoo’s on female empowerment. But the fact is, these pieces are built on transcendental ideas. Examples of transcendental elements in the pieces listed above:
“only this passage of phantasmal light
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.”
-From Walcott’s “Season of Phantasmal Peace”.
“Out of sheer taciturnity the ceiling listens
to the fall of the ancient leafless rain,
to feathers, to whatever the night imprisoned;”
from Neruda’s Sonnet LXV.
That discussion was repeated very regularly. Nana: “Ah, ah, you know, Kaya, I thank my God that your very first child is female. But Kaya, I am not sure about her legs. Hm . . . hm . . . hm . . .” And Nana would shake her head. Maami: “Mother, why are you always complaining about Adjoa’s legs? If you ask me . . .” Nana: “They are too thin. And I am not asking you!” Nana has many voices. There is a special one she uses to shut everyone up. “Some people have no legs at all,” my mother would try again with all her small courage. “But Adjoa has legs,” Nana would insist; “except that they are too thin. And also too long for a woman. Kaya, listen. Once in awhile, but only once in a very long while, somebody decides — nature, a child’s spirit mother, an accident happens, and somebody gets born without arms, or legs, or both sets of limbs. And then let me touch wood; it is a sad business. And you know, such things are not for talking about every day. But if any female child decides to come into this world with legs, then they might as well be legs.” “What kind of legs?” – Ama Ata Aidoo’s “The Girl Who Can”.
Gaamangwe: Don’t you just love it when the creative intelligence takes over, when you step back so the poem can write itself. Perhaps, that’s where great art comes from. How often does that happen for you? Because you have been writing for some time now, have you learnt to step back for the poem to write itself or this stepping back is a thing of mystery too? Although, I do think that there is no greater mystery than the self. Ever watch yourself watching yourself and think: what am I? What am I? Just the exactness of what you are. What answers come up for you? I think it is a hard question but I think it’s the question to transcend.
I too love the Aristotelian concept of the Unmoved Mover. In fact, somewhere in my old teenage poem scribbles, there is a poem with that exact title. I was obsessed with the energy behind the physical and the metaphysical: Gaia, Elohim, El-Shaddai, Yahweh, Jehovah, Adonai and All-That-Is. I felt that if we could unravel this, if we could unpack the prime mover, or at-least the very fact that we believe in such a concept, then the exactness of what we are will not really matter. We will know the secrets of the universe and all these problems of our earth will make sense. And what is sensible is fixable, right? But this is the oldest question with many answers.
I must find and read “The Girl Who Can”. It sounds truly powerful. I am drawn to art that is multilayered with multiverses. Perhaps because this business of our existences can be understood and reflected and possibly transcended there?
D.M.: I mean, practically all of my poems take their lives from me, some even fall out of the vision I had for them and become something else. At first, it was disconcerting, but with time, I began to trust the poems to be good drivers of their own destinies, and enjoy this process as much as when my consciousness is in full control of a piece. It’s all about trusting the process, as 76ers basket-baller Joel Embiid would say!
To answer your question on metaphysics. I agree, if this mystery is unraveled, it won’t matter anymore. The funny thing is, the lack of trust in the process is what keeps metaphysics moving. Take our society for example; our parents distrusted their parents’ spiritual processes and adopted new ones, and now our generation is challenging what our parents adopted (for the most part). And why is this a cycle? Because things such as being, cause, time and space are what make up our spiritual beliefs. And once there is an alteration of one or more of these things, the cycle begins.
On the last part, Ama Ata Aidoo is everything to me. Along with Naomi Shihab Nye, Ama Ata Aidoo is one of the most important writers in my life. Because my first poems primarily revolve around lives of African women, and I’m only a man, the writings of Ama Ata Aidoo provided to me the first window into the lives of African women. Aidoo’s writing details the lives of African women in particular and women in general like no other, and from her I have learned what things to write and what not to write about women, especially given the fact that I write as a witness. Aidoo made me understand some of my mother’s actions and the reasons behind them. You know, like why my mother would scream at me at night during my teenage years when I spent more time on the street than at home.
Gaamangwe: This is true and important, that is: trusting the process and challenging our current spiritual beliefs. Well, not so much challenging but taking time to introspect and analyse if they work for us. I think questioning is important, but also having faith in the wisdom of those who’ve been here should not be disregarded. It’s tricky but it’s a gut process. If it feels right for you, then do it.
Now, let’s shift to your award-winning chapbook, In Praise of Our Absent Father, what was the impulse for creating this book, and what did you (and possibly still) discover about yourself and life in this important creation?
D.M.: If you asked me this exact question last year, my response would be different. This is because I’m constantly growing, and growth comes with discoveries. That said, my chapbook, I have come to realize is not only a product of the desire to talk about an aspect of my society that I find disturbing, it’s a constant reminder of what I don’t want to be. More importantly, it’s a cry for help. Not just from the immediate subjects of the poems in the chapbook, but the entire human race.
Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. What about your manuscript Becoming My Mother’s Son? The title projects the idea that it’s also another exploration of your relationship and experiences with your mother. What was different about creating this full-length manuscript, and will it be published anytime soon?
D.M.: It’s funny because I almost mentioned my full length manuscript when I was responding to the chapbook question, since the chapbook was cut out of the full length. So, half of the poems in the chapbook will still be in my full length when I get to publish it by God’s grace. The full manuscript is totally different from my chapbook. In addition to everything I have said about the chapbook in my previous response, the full length is more complex and deals with more themes, as it should. It houses an extended elegy, starts from the past and ends in the future. I think that’s all I can say about it for now, I want readers to have their own interpretations.
Gaamangwe: I look forward to seeing and reading your full length manuscript! All the best of luck with that and your writing. And thank you for joining me in this space.
D.M.: Thank you too for the space and grace. Oluwa a bukun e ooo.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.